As you may have noticed, everybody’s going batty about gas prices (neat map of prices here). Well, here at s.b.s., we think it’s about time somebody started talking about the rising cost of lobster lines. In Maine, lobstermen returning heaps of salty rope scored $1.40 a pound. And I’m all for it.
The program, sponsored by the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, is part of a last-ditch effort to save the lives of whales without bankrupting lobstermen. Lobster lines and other submerged fishing lines are second only to monster ship traffic in killing whales along the East Coast. And no, the whales aren’t cramming themselves into the little lobster pots – they’re getting ensnared in the miles and miles of submerged crochetwork that connects a fisherman’s many traps.
Like the problem with ship collisions, this is another matter of tragic coincidence: whales finding themselves wedged mutely between survival and commerce. Fishermen keep their hundreds of traps organized by threading them together with lines. And they design the rope to be slightly buoyant, so that it floats a little ways above the bottom, where it won’t get hopelessly snagged on rocks.
Trouble is, it does tend to get hopelessly snagged on whales – wrapped around their flippers or wedged in between their baleen plates like pieces of corn stuck between your teeth. As the whale tries to escape, the situation just gets more hopeless and its bindings tighten around it. The whale may manage to break the lines free, only to limp away and starve to death later.
Entanglement is frightfully common – about 75 percent of all living North Atlantic right whales (plus plenty of other species, like humpbacks) carry scars from fishing gear. Many are still carrying gear with them right now, trailing lines behind them as they try to get on with their lives. The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies maintains a whale disentanglement team ready to scramble at any moment, armed with an inflatable boat and a pair of snippers on a very long pole (as above).
One seemingly simple solution is to replace much of that fishing line with a heavier variety that will lie along the seafloor and be much harder for a whale to swim through. The fishing industry, looking out for its own interests, has complained that the new lines are too expensive and that they’ll snag on rocks, depriving lobstermen of their catch and of valuable equipment. It’s a valid concern, but similar to the shipping industry’s complaints that tight schedules mean they just can’t afford to slow down and dodge whales.
That’s why I was so glad to see the actual results of the buy-back-your-lobster-line program. Regardless of industry positioning or regulatory strong-arming, it seems that many regular fishermen thought enough of the plan to turn in 270,000 pounds of gear so far, with more on the way. At $1.40 a pound, I’d say everybody comes out ahead. Except, I guess, the lobsters.